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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Shepard’

For various reasons when The Right Stuff landed in movie theaters in 1984 it did not find a wide audience. But I was glad to experience it in all its glory on the big screen. I was in film school at the time and just delighted by the overall filmmaking of the movie. I was familiar the Pulitzer Prize playwright Sam Shepard who was in the early stages of being the movie star Sam Shepard when he played pilot Chuck Yeager. I still think it was one of the best matches of two larger than life characters. The following scene captures Yeager —who was the first to break the sound barrier (and who died yesterday)—and Shepard, who had a face that didn’t need any words to communicate volumes.

Of course, there is no doubt tucked in that scene Philip Kaufman’s direction and script (based on Tom Wolfe’s book), Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography, Bill Conti’s music, and a wealth of other people from production design, art direction, and editing that made that scene (and the whole movie) special.

From a screenwriting perspective, in Yeager and his life-threatening feat in 1947 you have conflict, character, emotion, and a climatic scene all rolled into one.

Here’s a little more about the real Yeager who was World War II vet from West Virginia.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Sometimes you know something’s coming…you feel it in the air. A voice in your head is telling you something is going to go terribly wrong…and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler) in Bloodline

Todd A. Kessler,  Glenn Kessler,  Daniel Zelman created the Netflix series Bloodline which was shot in the Florida Keys.

“We were looking for a place to set [Bloodline] that had kind of an iconic sensibility for the United States, if not the world. Many people if they’ve never been to the Keys have at least heard of the Keys or most people have at least heard of the Florida Keys. Something weird goes on down there. It’s kind of like New Orleans or Las Vegas or Los Angeles, you know, places that people know of.”
Todd A. Kessler
UPROXX interview with Daniel Fienberg 

In about 10 hours as I write this post the Florida Keys are projected to be hit with category 3 or 4 hurricane. There’s no good outcome of this storm. There’s nowhere for Hurricane Irma to go that won’t wreck havoc.  We can hope that most of the people living in and visiting the Keys have already evacuated as the eye of the hurricane will go directly over the string of islands on the southern tip of Florida.

From there, there’s the strong possibility Hurricane Irma will go up the west coast of Florida hitting Naples, Ft. Myers, Sarasota, Tampa/St. Pete, and Cedar Key. My father died in 1995 while living in St. Pete Beach and he always worried about “the big one” hitting that area because—like parts of Houston—there’s nowhere for the water to go except over land. (The last major hurricane to hit the area was The 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane )

I last visited Key West earlier this year, and was in Tampa/St. Pete just two weeks ago. These are areas I’ve been exploring off and on for 30 plus years and it’s a land mixed with beauty and fragileness. I hope the people and buildings weather the storm well.

P.S. Bloodline ended its three season run on earlier this year. And even though the show didn’t perhaps find a wide audience some called it Netflix’s finest show to date. And it did give viewers one of the final looks at the talents of Sam Shepard—and did a super job of showcasing the Florida Keys.

Related posts:
Sam Shepard (1943-2017)
Postcard #111 (Captain Tony’s)
‘Burbank by the Sea’—St. Petersburg, Florida
Postcard #107 (Downtown St. Pete)
Postcard #142 (Sarasota Seahorse)
Don’t Waste Your Life (2.0)  (Written after an Iowa tornado I was hired to cover.)

Scott W. Smith

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Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

“I’m self-taught. I learn everything by doing it. I wasn’t born knowing how to write a play. You do it and hopefully you keep evolving. One really great thing happened was that I discovered Chekhov’s short stories.”
Sam Shepard

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When I was in film school back in the early eighties I don’t think there was anyone cooler than Sam Shepard. He had toured with Bob Dylan in early 70s, become a well-known New York City playwright in late 70s, and in the 80s became a screenwriter and a movie star.

The above scene is from The Right Stuff (1983) for which he received an Oscar-nomination for his role as pilot Chuck Yeager. Others may know of Shepard for his roles in Black Hawk Down, Days of Heaven, Francis, or most recently in TV program Bloodline—or his long relationship with actress Jessica Lange.

Back in 2011 in a post called Sam Shepard’s Start I pulled an extended quote where he talked about his early roots:

“I got a job delivering papers in Pasadena, and pretty soon, by reading the ad sections, I found out about an opening with a traveling ensemble called the Bishop’s Company. I decided to give it a shot, thinking that this might be a way to really get out. At the audition they gave me a little Shakespeare thing to read—I was so scared I read the stage directions—and they hired me. I think they hired everyone.

“We traveled all over the country—New England, the South, the Midwest. I think the longest we stayed anywhere was two days. It was actually a great little fold-up theater. We were totally self-sufficient, we put up the lights, made the costumes, performed the play, and shut down. Anyway, one day we got to New York to do a production at a church in Brooklyn and I said, ‘I’m getting off the bus.’

“…I was staying on Avenue C and Tenth Street with a bunch of jazz musicians, one whom happened to be Charlie Mingus’s son. We knew each other from high school, and he got me a job as a busboy at the Village Gate. The headwaiter at the Gate was a guy named Ralph Cook. Ralph was just starting his theater at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, and he said he’d heard that I’d been writing some stuff, and he wanted to see it. So, I showed him a few plays I’d written, and he said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ Things kind of took off from there. New York was like that in the sixties. You could write a one-act play and start doing it the next day. You could go to one of those theaters—Genesis, La Mama, Jusdon Poets—and find a way to get in done. Nothing like that exists today.”
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Sam Shepard (and actor/screenwriter/director)
Playwrights at Work

I hope those of you starting out find that helpful and track down more of Shepard’s theater and film work. A good place to start would be his play Buried Child for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Shepard also wrote the script for Paris, Texas — winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Paris, Texas is a heartbreaking character study of longing and lacerations of the heart.”
Hillary Weston 

When you blog daily you have to find ways to try to keep it fresh. So the journey that started with Holland, Michigan—The Screenplay, and continued on to  Vernon, Florida yesterday, now leads us to Paris, Texas. The Wim Wender’s directed film from a script by Sam Shepard with L.M. Kit Carson doing some re-writing came out in 1984. Like Tender Mercies that came out the prior year, it was a film that captivated me and moved me in a way that’s hard to explain.

If say 80% of Hollywood movies follow a somewhat similar narrative flow, we can be thankful for filmmakers who fill in some of the other 20% with words and images that defy our normal movie going experience.

“What makes Paris, Texas and all of Wim’s work so special is that it is filled with so much yearning and so much restlessness; people aching so badly to find what it is they’re looking for. They’re all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive.”
Hillary Weston
Cinematic Panic: Longing Endlessly With Wim Wenders

If you’re drawn to writing less traditional screenplays the one blessing you have is often times actors get tired of being in traditional Hollywood roles and enjoy opportunities that allow them to do something that flexes some of their acting muscles they sometimes don’t use. Harry Dean Stanton acted in more than 100 films before he made Paris, Texas and The Observer quoted him saying of the film , “After all these years, I finally got the part I wanted to play. If I never did another film after Paris, Texas I’d be happy.”

Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or at 1984 Cannes Film Festival, and the film is now part of The Criterion Collection.

I found a link at the excellent Cinephilla and Beyond that includes an old article by L.M. Kit Carson subtitled Postcards from the Old Man on Paris, Texas that contains this nugget called The Wim Movie Making Method:

“When you make a movie you actually make two movies at the same time. 1) the movie you write and think you’re supposed to make; 2) the movie that comes up, you can’t write it ahead of time, it only comes up from the people gathered when you shoot. The second movie is the true movie, you watch for it and make it.”

Though it’s been a long time since I last saw Paris, Texas,  I do rememeber being impressed with the cinematography of Robby Müller and the music of Ry Cooter.

P.S. Yes, there really is a Paris, Texas  ( “Second Largest Paris in the World.”) and they even have a 70-foot Eiffel Tower replica—which a cowboy hat on top of it.

Scott W. Smith

 

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I’m up in the Twin Cities again for a shoot and happened to be driving through St. Paul yesterday when I heard the news that Al Franken was officially declared the winner of the Senate race that has been in limbo for eight months. It was a good day to be a talk radio host up here. Remember this is the state that once chose Jesse Ventura for Governor.

Because it’s tucked away in the upper midwest, Minnesota kind of flies under the radar for the rest of the country so they have to do some interesting things to get attention.  There’s a great mix of people up here and that’s helped  produced a variety of creative talent from Prince to Diablo Cody. 

A couple days ago I mentioned that Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange lived in the Minnesota -St. Paul area for a period of time while they were raising their kids. So I thought it would be fitting to find a quote from Shepard and I found this one from an interview he did in St. Paul back in 2004:

“I’m self-taught. I learn everything by doing it. I wasn’t born knowing how to write a play. You do it and hopefully you keep evolving. One really great thing happened was that I discovered Chekhov’s short stories. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really start reading them ‘til about 5 or 6 years ago. I’d always kind of dismissed Chekhov and didn’t really know why. When I came upon the stories, and started really reading and studying them, I couldn’t believe it. I read every single one.”
                                                  Sam Shepard
                                                  Interview with Don Shewey
                                                  Rock-And-Roll Jesus with a Cowboy Mouth 

 

Scott W. Smith


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But, somewhere back there in the dust,
That same small town that’s in each of us.

                                    The End of the Innocence 
                                    Don Henely 

Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say
Look who’s in the big town
But my bed is in a small town

                                     Small Town
                                     John Mellencamp

 

What would you do if you won an Academy Award? What if against all odds you won two? Would you load up the family and move to Beverly Hills? But what if you already lived there or in New York City? Where would you put the idea of moving to a small town in Minnesota a year after you won your second Oscar? 

That’s what actress Jessica Lange did back in 1995 after she won her second Academy Award. She, Sam Shepard and their four kids moved to Stillwater, Minnesota,  a small town that sits on the St. Croix River just outside the Twin Cities.  Why?

Jessica Lange told Architectural Digest a couple years ago, “I had this kind of romantic image of the children growing up not dissimilarly to the way I grew up in a small town where they could walk to school. Even more than that, I wanted to raise them close to their extended family.”

So they bought a house next to where her mother lived. So the town not only got a Hollywood actress, but in Sam Shepard they also got an Oscar nominated actor (The Right Stuff), a screenwriter,  and a Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright (Buried Child).  It’s not so off the wall when you think about it. Lange was born 15 miles south of Duluth in Cloquet,  Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, IL.

They lived in Stillwater for about a decade.  Then after Lange’s mother died and all but one of their kids had graduated from high school there was no reason to be in Stillwater anymore so they moved to New York. But for a while they lived the small town dream. (They still own a lake cabin near Cloquet.)

A few days ago I had a video shoot in Minneapolis and ended up driving through Stillwater one morning. In some ways it’s outgrown the hardware store on Main St. thing and in some ways has been changed by gift shops and the condos that have popped up. After Lange sold their Stillwater house she commented that the town wasn’t real anymore. But for most small towns in America it’s a matter of growing or dying. (That probably could be said of most things in life.) From my perspective, Stillwater looks like a pretty fine place to live. (But it is a long commute if you work on Broadway from time to time.)

There’s something mythical about small towns in America. A little idealism mix with romanticism. A place where life is somewhere in between It’s a Wonderful Life and  Live it to Beaver. Where little kids can wander down Main Street like Opie did in Mayberry and where teenagers can hangout like they do on Happy Days. And if you can’t move back to the 1950s or live in a black & white movie or TV show then living in a small town may be as close as you can get to the ideal.

Of course, the reality is that there are often economic struggles in smaller towns. Teenagers are bored and can’t wait to leave. And small towns are not immune from drugs and violence. But small towns are still a refuge. And there is a reason why many of those teenagers when they hit their 30s and have kids move back to those same boring towns to raise their families. And they bring their gifts, talents and new perspectives that make the town a better place for everyone.

If you were in Cedar Falls, Iowa this weekend it would have made you at least think, “I could live in a place like this.” With two days of weather more fitting for San Diego, you could have watched a parade down Main St., eaten kettle corn while you listened to the United States Marine Corp Band perform at the band shell, taken a long bike ride through a state park, watched lighting bugs in the early evening, and listened to the church bells Sunday morning and a sala band down by the river Sunday night.

As a matter of fact, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard lived in this area for a while back in the 80s. They rented a house in the Prospect area of the neighboring city of Waterloo while filming the farm crisis movie Country that was shot here in Black Hawk County. (That would have been the time when I was living in L.A. and going to Shepard’s play True West that featured Randy and Dennis Quaid in a small theater in Hollywood.)

Lange has the talent and has built her career in a way that allows her to live anywhere she wants and to continue her acting career. And my hope is with the changing digital technology and the various incentives to shoot films outside L.A. that there will rise up a new generation of filmmakers and actors who can make good films and live good lives wherever they want to live.

Well, I have to go walk to work now…

 

Scott W. Smith


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It’s interesting to me that the screenwriter who wrote one of the most memorable lines in recent cinema didn’t start out wanting to be a writer.

Before Aaron Sorkin wrote the Jack Nickolson line “You can’t handle the truth” in A Few Good Men, and before his multiple Emmy’s for West Wing, he was an actor. After graduating from Syracuse University with a BFA in musical theater in 1983 he moved to New York City.  And he got work as an actor…not on Broadway, or even off-Broadway, but way, way far off from Broadway.

“When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I traveled the South with a touring children’s theater company called The Traveling Playhouse. When I say the South, we weren’t playing in Atlanta, we were playing Jasper, Alabama. We’d do six or seven shows in elementary school gymnasiums at about ten o’clock in the morning, then pile into a station wagon, and a van carrying the costumes and sets. We did The Wizard of Oz, Rip Van Winkle, and Greensleeves. We were paid thirty dollars a performance.”
Aaron Sorkin
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting
Interview with William Froug
Page 31

Sorkin says he had no interest in writing until one day at a “Motel Six or something” somewhere in Georgia when, “I don’t know why, I all of a sudden felt like Sam Shepard. I felt like I ought to be writing something. That’s the first time that thought went into my head, and it just kept nagging at me and I just felt like a writer without ever having written anything.”

Magical things can happen on the road—even in a Motel Six.

Dream big, start small.

Scott W. Smith

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“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
                                                        
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)
                                                          Cars       

                                                    

This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Chinatown
Scarface
Titanic
Sunset Blvd.
Tootsie
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella 
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Rocky 
Jaws
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Big
Greed
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Castway
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 
Rollover 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 

 

(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America.”
Sarah Bernhardt

“You’re Abe Froman… the sausage king of Chicago?”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.
H. L. Mencken

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!”
The Untouchables

Last week a 5.4 earthquake hit Illinois and was felt in Indiana and as far away as Iowa. Just one more way the Midwest is following those California trends. You know, I’m doing my part to export screenwriting from the Midwest and other unlikely places where people are writing so it makes sense to make another road trip and head over the Iowa state line to the east and travel into Illinois.

The epicenter of last week’s earthquake was West Salem, but from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective the epicenter for the Midwest is Chicago. It’s the third largest city in the United States and sits with a commanding view of Lake Michigan and can rightly be called The Third Coast.

Everyone should have the opportunity once in their life to have their own version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the windy city. Here’s my perfect Chicago day: The Art Institute in the morning, a walk and lunch at the Navy Pier, see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field, ride an architectural boat tour, a sunset dinner at the Signature Room high atop the John Hancock Center , a play at one of the zillions of theater options, a carriage ride around the Chicago Water Tower downtown and a nice room at The Drake Hotel on the Magnificent Mile with a room overlooking the Gold Coast (and where they welcome my golden retriever).

And if you have the weekend you can fit in a concert at Millennium Park and a list that just gets longer and longer. Chicago is a great city. And it alone has produced a wealth of creative talent that shines as bright as a city. (Maybe that’s why Dan Quayle once said, “It is wonderful to be in the great state of Chicago…”)  Here’s a list of writers from Illinois though I’m sure to leave out many people. (Feel free to email me additional writers with connections there.)

Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)
Sam Shepard (True West)
David Mamet (The Verdict)
Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)
Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels)
Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan)
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)
Mark Brown (Barbershop)
John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix)
Harold Ramis  (Groundhog Day)
Bill Murray (The Razor’s Edge)
Greg Glienna (Meet the Parents)
Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness)
John Logan (Gladiator)
Jon Favreau (Swingers)
Tina Fey (Mean Girls)
Michael Mann (The Insider)
Phil Vischer (VeggieTales movies)
Roger Rueff (The Big Kahuna)
Robert Zemeckis,  (Back to the Future)
Edward Zwick, (The Last Samurai)
Diablo Cody (Juno)
John Logan (Hugo
Garry Marshall (The Odd Couple-TV)

From the odd connections category, Evangelist Billy Graham (who used to have a film studio in Burbank) and horror specialist Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) both graduated from Wheaton College about 30 miles from downtown Chicago. Blues Brother, and writer/actor John Belushi graduated from Wheaton High School.

Film critic and produced screenwriter Roger Ebert (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and screenwriter/Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman) are both are both graduates of the University of Illinois system.

Filmmaker and book publisher Michael Wiese is originally from Illinois. I have at least a dozen production books that Michael Wiese Productions has produced. If you’re not familiar with their books three to check out are Save the Cat (Blake Snyder) , Shot by Shot (Steven D. Katz) and The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler).

A special mention must be made to two pillars of writing from Chicago: Pulitzer Prize winner Saul Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift) and Studs Terkel (Hard Times).

The list of well-known actors with Chicago ties is too long to list but here are a few;  Harrison Ford, Vince Vaugh, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, John and Joan Cusack, Virgina Madsen, Kim Novak, Bill Murray, Terrance Howard, Red Foxx, Bonnie Hunt, Patricia Arquette, Karl Malden and Gary Sinise.

Chicago is the kind of place where probably every night of the week you could attend a film related function between the various school, colleges and professional groups. There are plenty of ways to avoid writing if you live in the Chicago area.

But, of course, your goal is probably to write while living outside L.A., get sold and get produced. (I’ve said before you could live in West Africa or West Covina and feel like you’re far from the Hollywood system.)

Let me tell you about a fellow I just found out about via the DVXuser.com forum. Kyle is a radiologists living in the suburbs of Chicago. He owns a DV camera package and writes screenplays. In other words he was like every other writer with a dream…until a couple weeks ago.

He wrote a screenplay called The Lemon Tree and had a lawyer he met in Chicago rep him in L.A. and earlier this month sold the script for $300,000 against $600,000. He has no plans to quit his job and move to L.A. The next step is seeing if the film gets made and then if it finds an audience. But as far as a writer outside the system Kyle has hit the jackpot, and proves it can be done.

(You can read the entire thread and download a well-informed screenwriting document Kyle has put together at DVXuser.com. Look under filmmaking–screenplay/writing/Sold it! The DVXuser forum is a wealth of info for the independent filmmaker and a supportive community. Here’s a little poser shot of me with my DVX camera back in ’06 when I was shooting a documentary in Chicago.)

If you want further proof that screenplays can be sold by screenwriters outside L.A. here is a quote that screenwriter and author of Save the Cat! Blake Snyder sent me when I asked him about writers living outside L.A. selling their work:

“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ‘em!”

On the footsteps of The Dark Knight (Batman) being filmed last summer in Illinois, the current big movie being shot there is Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant starting Matt Damon with a funky mustache. The story takes place in Decatur and is based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book about a scandal at Archer Daniels Midland’s Company (ADM) that involved the FBI. Ultimately ADM was fined $100 million for a conspiracy involving replacing sugar with high fructose corn syrup. Shades of Soderbergh’s other film about corporate greed,Erin Brockovich?

Other helpful sites about the filmmaking scene in Illinois here are a few recommended sites:

Reel Chicago

Chicago Script Works

Midwest FIlm

Chicago Screenwriters

Illinois Film Biz


So come on, if Abraham Lincoln can go from a one room log cabin to become the 16th President of the United States (via Illinois) certainly that should give you some motivation to overcome a few obstacles in your life to get your scripts written and sold. Or maybe to buy a camera and make your own films. Even if you live in Springfield or Kankakee.

Speaking of Kankakee, if Screenwriting from Iowa had a theme song it might be Chicago native Stevie Goodman’s City of New Orleans because it captures a flavor of a life beyond Hollywood:

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ towns that have no names
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Chorus
Good morning, America, how are you
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

And if I can pick a B-side song I’ll go with, Jim Croce’s tribute to the South Side of ‘ole Chicago — Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.

Photographs & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Here’s everything I learned in film school (and in screenwriting workshops and books)…boiled down to one word. But before I get to that one word let me say that I went to film school so long ago that Orson Welles was in my class. Okay, not that long ago, but back when film schools only used film.

I mention that because I think the average film school student today (heck, high school student) is much more film savvy then when I was in school. Because of DVDs and the Internet students today generally can converse about film directors and writers on a pretty sophisticated level. (The Tarantino factor?)

At least in Florida in the early 80s film school was a little off the chart. After I told a high school friend I was going to film school he asked, “What do you do with that?” (I’m still trying to answer that question.)

Before everyone wanted to be a film director young people just wanted to be rock stars. I knew nobody who had any connection to the film industry when I decided to go to film school.

I mention all of this because the one word I’m going to tell you is so basic. But it is the single most important thing I learned in film school. It may not be a revelation to you, but it’s important nonetheless.

And as professor and writer CS Lewis said, “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught.”

The most important thing I learned in film school was the importance of (here it comes) conflict. Not just any conflict, but meaningful conflict.

A few years ago I went to a writing workshop with Alfred Uhry, the writer of Driving Miss Daisy. I believe he’s the only writer to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award. I thought that it was sure to be a wealth of writing information.

This was when I lived in Orlando (Anyone remember Hollywood East?) when a theater group was performing Driving Miss Daisy that he was coming to see and agreed to do a master class on writing.

One of the first things he said was something to the effect of — I’m not sure why I’m here. I’m not sure why they asked me to speak on writing. I’m not sure there are any rules to follow.

This is what I paid money to hear?

I raised my hand and asked, “What about conflict?”

He agreed conflict was important and he began to talk and we were off to the races. He didn’t have a prepackaged seminar, but it was a wonderful day of hearing his antidotes and experiences in the film business.  He said something that has stuck with me all these years and that I think would be helpful for all writers to hear. It was about his expectations after writing Driving Miss Daisy. He had little expectations.

He was in early fifties and he just wrote the 62 page play as a tribute to his grandmother. That’s all. He wasn’t trying to change the world. He wasn’t trying to get rich and famous. He wasn’t trying to write the great American screenplay and win an Academy Award. His starting place was small–almost obscure.

When he found out it would have a six-week run at a theater in New York so far off-Broadway that you had to walk up three flights of stairs to see the play, he was thrilled. He was glad it would have a long enough run that all his relatives could see the play.

Kind of reminds me of Sam Shepard’s early plays that were performed in a church basement in Manhattan. (Speaking of Shepard, let me get in an Iowa plug. The movie Country, about the farm crisis in the 80’s, starring Shepard and Jessica Lange was filmed right here in Black Hawk County.)

Uhry didn’t know that his story of an elderly Jewish woman and her black driver would strike a chord like it did. (It certainly wasn’t a high concept story.) But the play became a Broadway hit and then it was off to Hollywood.

To borrow the words of Jimmy Buffett, Uhry “captured the magic.” May we all be fortunate enough in our life to have that experience one time. Driving Miss Daisy was Uhry’s equivalent of Don McClean’s song American Pie. It’s become a part of the fabric of our culture.

Uhry captured the magic with a story that was small in Hollywood terms, but one full of conflict as well as meaning.

From the opening scene when she had an accident while backing her car out…until Miss Daisy died it is a story full of meaningful conflict.

If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. The lack of conflict in screenplays is why studio readers say that you can cut out the first 30 pages of many screenplays and nothing would be lost. Start your story as late as you can and start it with conflict. (Rocky loses his locker, in Sounder the boy’s dad is hauled away, Nemo’s mother, brothers and sisters are all killed, Juno is pregnant, all in the first few scenes of the story. And it’s hard to beat the first line in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect.” When you wake up and you’re a bug, that’s meaningful conflict.)

What are your favorite movies scenes? Good chance they’re full of meaningful conflict. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small (Sunset Boulevard). “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict.

“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
Edward Albee

“Nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”
Richard Walter

“Never put two people in a room who agree on anything.”
Lew Hunter

Look AFI’s list of heroes and villains. All full of conflict.

AFI’s100 Years…100 Movie Quotes is full of meaningful conflict. (“Houston we have a problem.” Apollo 13)

So there you have everything I learned in film school boiled down into one word — conflict.

I just saved you tens of thousands of dollars. (I hope you’ll buy my book when it’s published.)

Now all you have to do is sit down and write a story full of meaningful conflict. That’s the hard part.

In every scene you write there should be some level of conflict. It could be rising conflict (the calm before the storm) or resolution afterwards. But conflict is at the core of your story. Conflict with self, conflict with society, conflict friends and family, conflict with nature…but have conflict with something.

Meaningful conflict usually is conflict on at least two levels. The town has conflict with the shark eating people, and an economic conflict if tourist are kept away which leads to conflict in society with leads to conflict within the family. And to top it off the sheriff has his own conflict because he is afraid of the water. Jaws was not just a run-of-the-mill special effects movie. In fact, the special effects weren’t all that special.

The reason conflict is such a powerful piece of filmmaking is because we can relate to that in our own lives. Mike Tyson said that, “Everyone has a plan, until they are punched in the face.” Country music singer Deana Carter has a song titled, “Did I shave my legs for this?” We can relate to conflict. Every day we have to deal with conflict on many levels. It’s part of living east of Eden.   

Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t written in Iowa, but it takes place far from Hollywood in a small town in Georgia.  And that’s at the heart of Screenwriting from Iowa.

The state of Georgia is no stranger to conflict. (I’m not just talking about the Civil War or the Florida Gator’s football team.) Read the sermons from Ebenezer Baptist church by its former pastor Dr. Martin Luther King.  And think of these songs and stories rooted in Georgia history.

Gone with the Wind

Forrest Gump

Glory

Deliverance

The Color Purple

Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil

The Devil went Down to Georgia

The Night the Lights went out in Georgia

Rainy Night in Georgia

Midnight Train to Georgia

Any short story by Flannery O’Connor.

Write stories about where you live. And like Alfred Uhry don’t set out to write the great American screenplay. Just write screenplays full of meaningful conflict. 

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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